Guest Spots: Singer/songwriter Todd Snider’s favorite musical storytellers

We asked Todd Snider, to tell us about some of his favorite musical storytellers. What we got was a collection of musings on the writers and performers who have informed his stage persona, which is captured on his new double-disc live album, The Storyteller (Aimless, 2/1/11). Read on for some of “The Storyteller’s” favorite storytellers.

My Five Favorite Musical Troubadours
by Todd Snider

1. Bob Dylan

For me, when it comes to being a fan of a troubadour, I have to laugh with you before I’ll cry with you, simply because most troubadours expect you to cry over their journal entries with them. Most troubadours are awful people. Bob, however, is not. I think he’s America’s finest contribution to the world, of any kind. He does not have a song I don’t like, and while he doesn’t talk much on stage, when he does, it’s precise, funny, wise, and everything else. There really is no point in anyone else doing this troubadour thing. Hell, I once paid for a tape of Bob arguing on the phone…and I thought it was a great album.

2. Bill Hicks

While Bill might not be as funny as Bob Dylan, he does take on subjects that Bob abandoned as a young man, and through the use of humor he gives legs to these topics that Bob Dylan couldn’t. I have to admit that Bill never quite figured out how his music and lyrics meshed, but he sure tried. He played guitar on all his albums and often referred to himself as a rock musician.  I wonder sometimes if he knew what “talking blues” were, because he loved talking and loved the blues but never combined them. I sometimes tell Elvis, my tour manager, that we are taking up where Bill left off, like I’m Bill Hicks if he’d a been a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott fan.

3. Michael Stipe

Sexy physical humor is generally regarded as impossible, but with his dancing and striptease clothing act, Michael Stipe is about the only singer I’ve ever seen pull this off on a regular basis. Guys are laughing, girls are drooling — he’s in on all of it. Magic, and even comically ironic, considering his sexual orientation. Iggy Pop is close in this regard, but for me…no cigar. People don’t always get Michael’s humor, but did you ever see the video where he outs his band as straight? Hysterical. And I know he mumbles a lot of lyrics, but when you dig into them, they can be topical and funny. Ramblin’ Michael Stipe: troubadour. I have always been amazed at all the levels his performance could be taken on. Is that Andy Kaufman or Mick Jagger or Hunter S. Thompson? The answer is yes.

4. Mitch Hedberg

He reminds me of Michael Stipe a little in the way he juxtaposes his position as an artist. His stage stance was almost like Jim Morrison‘s — like imagine Jim doing “The End” hanging off the mic with his “aloof rocker who wont even look at the crowd” riff going. You know, the “I’m just gonna stand here behind my sexy” vibe. Except when he opens his mouth, what he says is hysterical and smart (not “ride the blue snake,” thank God). Hedberg’s another guy who was supposedly a comedian but actually considered himself a musician…and acted like one too. An admirable stoner-slash-junkie wearing great shades. One of the things I dig about him and Bill Hicks is that you really could put drums to his tracks. A drummer would not be lost trying to overdub to these concerts, because they move with rhythm. The last thing he ever wrote down was “Do you believe in gosh?”

5. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

The father of them all. Only wrote one song in his life and yet brought us everyone from Dylan to Jerry Jeff Walker. One thing I love about Ramblin’ Jack, Bob Dylan, and Jerry Jeff Walker is that those are not their real names. Any troubadour worth his salt invents himself out of nothing. It gave me the courage to just become the tipsy gypsy one day (high-school varsity letters and republican parents be damned). We’re not who our parents say we are. We’re who we say we are. Right, dad? And I’m Ramblin’ Jack Elliot?  Wait…I got confused there. Not sure what my point was.  Uh…I’ll tell you this, though: I saw Ramblin’ Jack at Jerry Jeff’s birthday party in 1986, and he played his only song. It’s called “912 Greens.” The song is about 15 seconds long and only has two lines in it: “Did you ever see a river that made you want to shiver?” But the story that precedes the song is 45 minutes long…

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